and, in a playful way, inform them and try to bias them toward something that’s healthier?”
Kids enjoy robots in movies, TV shows and toys. So it seems perfectly logical to call in a robot when a child needs some help learning or reinforcing a skill or behavior.
Both academic and commercial researchers are beginning to view robots as useful tools for helping kids overcome the challenges posed by conditions such as autism and obesity.
“There are many ways in which kids can benefit from interacting with robots, but I think it’s most important that these robots be designed in an ethical and safe way, and that they’re actually designed so they’re achieving some goal,” says Maja Mataric, founding director of the University of Southern California’s Los Angeles-based Center for Robotics and Embedded Systems.
“When we think about socially assistive systems, we have specific goals in mind, such as helping children with autism to learn social skills, so then you design the whole interaction to be about that.”
Socially Assistive Robotics
Mataric is working with researchers at MIT, Yale, Stanford and other leading institutions in a National Science Foundation (NSF) project ?Socially Assistive Robotics?that aims to develop the fundamental computational techniques necessary to design, implement and evaluate of robots that encourage social, emotional, and cognitive growth in children, including those with social or cognitive deficits.
Mataric puts it this way: “How can a robot, in a compelling way, both convey information and knowledge to a children and, in a playful way, inform them and try to bias them toward something that’s healthier?”
The researchers are hoping to find out by using robots to help first graders develop better eating habits. “In first grade kids are in school; often they’re buying lunch and they can make choices,” Mataric says. “So the question is, how can we evolve a playful robot that can play with the children, talk with them and maybe do a little game with them?”
Mataric says the goal is to help kids learn important nutrition-related facts and behaviors without even realizing it. “Sort of like they’re playing, but in the background they’re learning about vegetables and fiber versus carbs and all of that, and doing so in a very different and tangible way.”
The researchers evaluated several different platforms before selecting one to use with the first graders. “Right now, the first platform we’re experimenting with is the DragonBot that was developed at MIT,” Mataric says.
The DragonBot platform was specifically built to support long-term interactions between children and robots. The toy-sized unit, which is operated via an Android phone, features an animated face that offers a wide range of emotional expressions as well as the ability to present audio/video/motion-based dynamic content. The robot, which can run on battery power for over seven hours, has six physical degrees of freedom centered around a parallel manipulator.
The Android phone control app fully manages DragonBot’s actuation, including motors and speakers. Since the phone always has an Internet connection, the robot can utilize cloud-computing paradigms to learn from the collective interactions of multiple robots.
To support long-term interactions, DragonBot provides a “blended-reality” character. If the phone is disconnected from the robot, a virtual avatar appears on the screen and the user can continue to interact with the virtual character on the go. Costing less than $1,000, DragonBot was specifically designed to be a low-cost platform that can support longitudinal human-robot interactions “in the wild.”??
“In general, we’re not specifically worried about the particular platform,” Mataric says. “We are interested, very much, in tabletop robots that are safe, simple and affordable so they could potentially be available in many schools.”
In France, Aldebaran Robotics is hoping to reshape special education for autistic children. The Paris-based company has created the ASK NAO Initiative (Autism Solution for Kids) in an effort to provide a complete, user-friendly robotics solution to schools with special needs students.
“Many children with autism seem to be spontaneously attracted to technology,” says Olivier Joubert, Aldebaran’s autism business unit manager. “With the ASK NAO initiative, the autism community is invited to impact the development of the solution: autism experts are encouraged to provide specifications for applications on NAO and the Aldebaran Robotics developers community will develop them.”
NAO is a fully programmable, 22.8-inch-tall humanoid robot that’s designed to interact with students in various ways. The system incorporates a sensor network including cameras, microphones and pressure sensors, as well as a voice synthesizer and two high-fidelity speakers. Specially-designed software allows teachers and other NAO users to create and edit the robot?s movements and interactive behaviors.
When used with autistic children, the system employs speech, object recognition, tactile sensors and movements to help students develop their social skills as well as verbal and non-verbal communication and academic abilities. “But the most important thing, is they increase their self-esteem,” Joubert says.
Joubert notes that recent studies have shown a 30 percent increase in the number of social interactions as well as better verbal communication in some children with autism when a robot is in the same room.
Both teachers and NAO must adapt to each child?s needs
NAO, as a humanoid robot, provides a perfect bridge between the human and technological worlds, Joubert says. “With the help of caring teachers, NAO can give children and families a more autonomous, and thus better, life,” he adds.
On the other hand, Joubert acknowledges that the important task of helping autistic children develop better skill sets shouldn’t be left solely to robots. Concerned adults should coordinate NAO interaction training strategies, he says. “Robot providers, parents and teachers are a core component in robot integration,” he adds.
Joubert observes that autistic children generally enjoy interacting with robots. “From my experience, I would say that 70 percent are spontaneously super-attracted by NAO and like to work with him,” he says. “Twenty percent don’t care and 10 percent prefer to understand how to control the robot or [want to know] how it is made.” He adds that every child with autism is unique, and that both teachers and NAO must adapt to each child’s needs.
When using a system like NAO, teachers, parents and other caregivers must avoid overstimulating students while encouraging interactivity with people, Joubert says. “Our mission is to bring children back to social life, not to have them interacting only with robots,” he explains. “So educational sessions with robots should be interleaved with sessions with teachers so children generalize skills and learn to use them with humans.”
Mataric, meanwhile, notes that “there’s always a concern people have about putting children and technology together and having the technology take them away from other kids, from actually being active and so on.” Her research team is working in the opposite direction. “We’re looking at technology as a way of bringing kids together,” she says. “The kids and the robots are playing together.”
Robots also promise to help schools and other educational organizations provide better support for special-needs children in an era of stagnant or shrinking budgets. “As we all know, there isn’t enough human care available,” Mataric says. “When you have one in 88 children being diagnosed with autism, we cannot delude ourselves that all those children will get 12 hours of professional care every day for the rest of their lives,” she notes. “They will not, and so something else has to be there.”Read More